Not as crazy as it sounds, mistaking ramps, taxiways, parking lots and other places for the approach to the landing runway, continues to pose a commercial flight crew challenge.
One cloudy and shadowy late afternoon, I saw a superb international captain momentarily become misguided by three flashing yellow ground support vehicles, who just at this moment of transition from inside to outside, lined up perfectly in a slight right arc, very similar to the right arcing lead in lights to an old and famous Pac-rim airport. As the pilot-monitoring, I’d had the chance to be looking outside long enough to pick up the actual runway, 45 more degrees in our right banked turn. Without a word, I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the right. The captain quickly corrected and we completed an uneventful 11 hour flight, right before sunset.
Looking directly into the rising sun, the morning mist becomes almost impenetrable. So when the pilot flying lined up on the bold black asphalt taxiway, out of a right 180 approach circling turn and not the concrete runway, literally camouflaged by the mist, I was not surprised. “Go around,” seemed wise, as we were both fatigued. A salvage at that point would have been possible, I suppose, but unwise. The second approach was perfect.
Breaking out of a stormy night overcast after a seven hour international flight, the first few white lights lined up in a row with red flashing lights atop, looks like something near or around an airport, til I realized it was a nearby stadium car parking lot. In another moment we had the runway environment, landing safely.
So how did I avoid landing on the wrong runway after 43 years?
I would say what most pilots and successful people say: communications.
1. Brief what to expect with your flight crew during the approach brief. Lights, configurations, markings and signage.
2. Always, always, always tune up the ILS, just to have good glide slope and thus localizer support.
3. Double check and brief magnetic headings.
4. Keep talking during the approach with the flight crew, give everyone a chance to say what they are thinking. You’ll be surprised what golden nuggets can save your bacon.
5. Use the electronic magic, but only as a tool, not as a crutch. Plan to loose all electrics and know what to do. It’ll save you once or twice in 40 years.
6. Most of all remember to communicate with your crew, with ATC and your inner gut feelings.
7. Trust your instruments, not because they are electronic, but because you’ve set them up right, cross checked them, gotten a good audio check, and the maps, both paper and electronic line up.
8. Lastly, if you see something out of place, say something! You might be the only member of the crew, who at that point in time, has the correct picture, ensuring your flight does not line up to land on a taxiway.